OAKLAND, CALIF. — It took a few starts, but Alex Cobb has started doing what the Orioles expected him to. He's a ground-ball machine, is finding his swing-and-miss split-change, and is eating innings.
Now, it's time for the rest of the team to catch up to him.
Cobb was a hard-luck loser on Sunday in the Orioles' 2-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics as an infield defense that simply hasn't stood up to the challenge of pitching in front of a ground-ball pitcher like him made life difficult throughout.
He puts all the bad that happened to him both in his first three starts of the season, when he was still trying to find his stuff after signing in the final week of spring training and now two undeserved losses, on himself.
But now, what happens around him is magnified because Cobb has twice in a row taken care of his end of the bargain.
"He deserved, obviously, a better fate," manager Buck Showalter said. "He pitched well and that's Alex. Today I thought he had the full package, so that's the type of pitcher I think he's going to be for us over the long haul."
Said Cobb: "I think it's fair to say I'm feeling a lot more comfortable out there. It's hard to explain what it's like when you're out there in the middle of that field, and you really have no idea what pitches you're going to be able to execute or how to execute them or how to make adjustments. Once you start getting at least a few weapons here and there that you can go to and work on, then you start to feel more comfortable. You have better mound presence, better aggressiveness in the zone, and that's what I'm starting to feel."
All that's left is to merge this optimal version of Cobb, which emerged over 12 innings in his past two starts in California, with a team that is up for the challenge.
Twice before the fateful fourth inning that made Sunday a loss for him and the Orioles, Cobb got the ground ball he was looking for and saw it go through for a base hit.
His splitter, effective all day, was nonetheless pulled into right field for a leadoff double by Matt Joyce in the fourth. Cobb got a grounder back to the mound from the next batter, Mark Canha, and had Joyce cut down at third base when he decided to go that way.
But third baseman Pedro Álvarez, playing there so he could do things like hit the 433-foot home run that represented the Orioles' only offense in hopes that he wouldn't do something like this, dropped the toss to third base. He picked it up and lobbed it into right field as Joyce retreated to second base, putting both Joyce and Canha in scoring position as they advanced on his error.
That meant that instead of the ensuing ground ball to Engelb Vielma being a possible inning-ending double play, or at the very least another force to get the lead runner, Joyce scored on the play, and the next pitch was a run-scoring double to left field to put the Orioles behind 2-1.
Cobb said it's on him to buckle down there.
"I really take it as an opportunity to really gain some momentum as a club, " Cobb said. "Whenever somebody falters behind you, you have an opportunity as a pitcher to pick them up, and I don't think most fans realize or outside eyes realize when you do something like that for a teammate, it energizes the group.
"You know that it's almost a way that pitchers can show that we have your back. You're allowed to make mistakes and when you do, we'll cover those up. That allows them to play more freely. I was really mad at myself when that play happened in the fourth and I saw it as an opportunity to really pick us up, and I didn't. That was a lost moment for me."
The rest of his outing featured the same-old frustrations. He entered Sunday having made just four starts, compared to six or seven for many other starters around the game, but had coaxed 19 ground balls that were either hits or errors, two behind the league leaders at 21. He blew past everyone with five more on Sunday, with two coming after that fourth inning.
Cobb puts that on himself, too.
"That's a very small portion of the numbers," he said. "I would have to look at that more. But what I've noticed is I haven't had very many strikeouts, and when you don't have very many strikeouts, that ball is going to be put in play quite a bit, and I feel like more often than not, I turn around and the defense is lined up pretty well and we've made a lot of plays. I know those numbers are probably pretty high, but I think that's a product of me not striking anybody out and the balls being put in play. I think those are probably not telling the full story."
The strikeouts, though, are rising, in part because the split-change that was slow to come back when he returned from Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2017 is now becoming a weapon. It got a season-high seven swinging strikes, including three for third strikes, after producing just four whiffs in his first four starts of the season.
His five strikeouts Sunday give him 11 in 23 2/3 innings this season.
"I didn't have any pitches to do it with," Cobb said. "There were no swing-and-miss pitches. The changeup is coming. You can only go to the curveball so many times before they start picking up on it and [putting] it in play. It's coming now. I think just repetition and throwing, getting off to that late start was kind of tough to get the sharpness of the pitches."
Sunday marked his second straight quality start after three starts of allowing 10 hits and at least five earned runs in his first three in an Orioles uniform. His ERA fell from 9.68 to 7.61, and Showalter saw plenty other than his pitches to indicate Cobb had turned a corner. So did catcher Caleb Joseph.
"I thought he did pretty well," Joseph said. "He was able to really kind of find the changeup, the split. It was a nice pitch for him. I thought he threw quite a few down-and-away fastballs. That was really key. It looked like he was really in control."